"I wish that someone would give me a magic formula for salvaging shaky marriages," said Norman Vincent Peale to his minister father one evening after a long and weary counseling session with a couple. At that, his father responded: "I'll give you one. It consists of two words. Persuade the pair to say to each other, just once, `I'm sorry.' Try it. You'll see."
Peale found his father's advice to be potent. In working with quarreling couples, he said to each spouse privately, "I know you've had a lot to put up with, but tell me this: What's the one thing about your own conduct you regret most?" After eliciting some admission of fault or error, however grudging, Peale then asked each to acknowledge his or her own mistakes to the other, which was often the beginning of a breakthrough for the couple."Those two words can move mountains," he concludes. "Being human, we all need the art of apology. Look back with honesty, and ponder how often you've judged harshly, said unkind things, pushed yourself ahead at the expense of a friend. Then count the occasions when you indicated clearly and truly you were sorry.
"A bit scary, isn't it?" observes Peale. "Scary because some deep wisdom in us knows that when even a small wrong has been committed, some mysterious ethical equilibrium is disturbed; and it stays out of balance until fault is acknowledged and regret expressed."
Apologizing is never easy, and admitting to being in the wrong hurts, but once you face up to it and swallow your pride, it can be a wonderfully cleansing and healing thing, he concludes.
If an apology aids the person who apologizes, it also aids the person who receives it. Robert Conklin, author of "How To Get People To Do Things," reports taking an early morning breakfast flight from Minneapolis to St. Louis that was both late in departing and arriving. Adding insult to injury, the weather was turbulent and, admits Conklin, by the time the plane landed, he was grumpy.
But then the captain came on the intercom, apologizing for the choppy ride, and soon after the stewardness apologized for the delay. Says Conklin: "About this time I wanted to say, `Aw heck, it wasn't your fault the air was bumpy and the plane was late. You don't have to apologize.' . . . I felt brighter, as if the unpleasantries had been bagged and placed aside."
Apologizing is "an emotional pacifier, soothing to the jagged corners of someone's feelings . . . a way of saying you care," says Conklin. "People need that once in a while. The world keeps putting pebbles in one's shoes. . . . It's nice to have someone come along and take a few out."
Apologies "may seem to be verbal trifles, throwaway words that some don't consider of enough signfiicance to bother saying," continues Conklin. "But life is a mass of specks and drops, tiny happenings that are pluses or minuses.
Anything, no matter how small, that you can contribute of a plus nature to those about you makes you a special quantity in their lives."
So, since apolgizing is so healing to relationships, how can we effectively say "I'm sorry" to those we've wronged? Here are a few guidelines:
- Make a direct apology. Susan Jacoby, author of the article, "The Indispensable Art of Apology," remembers early memories of her mother telling her: "Don't look at the ground when you say, `I'm sorry.' Hold your head up and look the person in the eye, so he'll know you mean it."
- Be specific. Say what you're sorry for, what you might have done instead, and what you're willing to do differently in the future. Ultimately, it is actions - not words - that will make the apology work.
- Don't make excuses. Says Dianne Hales, author of the article, "How To Say You're Sorry:"
"Many people, trying to wriggle off the hook, get into deeper trouble by offering excuses rather than apologies. . . . They say to themselves, Yes, I screwed up, BUT I had a good reason.' While excuses may make the offender feel better about her misdeed, they often irritate the listener."
More importantly, an excuse dilutes an apology and deprives the other person of a chance to be forgiving, points out Jacoby.
- Apologize with dignity. That means, says Peale, "on your feet, not on your knees. You are trying to put wrong things right, and this deserves respect."
- Apologize for your part in any emotional collision with another person. Most people dismiss their own contributions to a conflict by thinking, "He started it" or "It's her fault."
Shift to the concept of "shared responsibility" anytime a conflict plays out more than a few seconds, both parties usually become responsible for the fray, having said or done things for which they could apologize. So simply acknowledge the wounding for which you are responsible.
Remember, it doesn't matter who began an altercation. The only thing that matters is who ends it.
- If you receive an apology, urges Jacoby, be gracious and acknowledge the effort made by the other - "I know it must have been hard for you to apologize" or "I really appreciate your saying that." Remember, she finishes: One person can make an apology graceful; two can make it complete.
- Dr. Larsen is a therapist practicing in Salt Lake City.